Ask a professor!
In every issue of the Transcript, we’ll invite a guest expert to answer questions submitted by MCB students. This quarter it’s Dr. Rich Gardner, assistant professor in the Pharmacology department at UW. Here he shares his advice for dealing with some of the tough situations we grad students face.
Have questions you’d like answered? Want to suggest a guest expert? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org!
1) How do I not make an ass of myself in the general exam?
Don’t act like an ass.
More seriously, the purpose of the exam is to challenge you and see how much you know or don’t know. Questions will be asked that you probably won’t know or will have difficulty answering. Trying to BS your way out of them will only elevate you to ass status. If you don’t know something, simply acknowledge your deficiency and make sure you understand what you don’t know in the future.
If a question isn’t clear, try to rephrase it back to the questioner or ask them to clarify. Sometimes committee members state questions inelegantly and it is better to try and see what they are getting after rather than going off on a tangent.
Nerves can get the better of a student in the general exam. However, if you’ve really delved into your project and understand what you are doing experimentally, where your project fits in the bigger picture, and many of the more subtler nuances that might emerge from your studies, then you will be fine. The exam isn’t a sprint, so take some time to collect yourself, breathe deeply, and think about what you say.
2) My PI can’t accept that I have less time in lab now that I am TAing. How should I handle this situation?
Each PI/student relationship is different, so it is difficult to advise on this generally.
PIs often forget what it is like to be a student and it is good to have a conversation with them about how much time TAing will take. You should do this before your TA stint, and then again during it if problems like this arise. Establishing and maintaining an open, honest, and frequent line of communication with your PI is imperative for a healthy PI/student relationship and will help with problems such as this. PIs get most antsy when they don’t know what you’re up to.
It is a requirement that you TA, so all PIs should provide some flexibility for this. Unfortunately, some PIs may not acknowledge this and, if this causes continuing tension, you might seek impartial help from the MCB office or your committee members.
That said, it is an expectation from most PIs that you will be working more in total when you TA. If you simply trade lab hours for TA hours and work the same overall weekly hours, this will irk many a PI. If you are working more overall hours when TAing, it is good to point this out to your PI if they question your time at the bench.
However, as you’ve probably figured out by now, a significant amount of effort at the bench is necessary for a PhD but it is not sufficient. You are primarily measured by your progress and productivity. If you become more efficient with your hours in the lab and are maintaining a good productive pace, your PI will probably not even notice that you are TAing. If your progress and productivity drops considerably during TAing, it will be noticed.
As a last bit of advice, when I was a student, I found that having a little data chum to feed the PI shark when s/he comes cruising usually helped. PIs always feel better when they see data.
3) My labmate leaves his timer going (and forgets it) every time he leaves the room. I am sick of the beeping. What would you do?
My preference is to smash it to bits with a hammer. That serves two satisfying purposes. First, the offender will now get that it is annoying to the nth degree to leave their timer unattended. Second, the timer no longer exists. Problem solved.
If you set a timer, keep the timer on you. The timer is supposed to remind you of something, not annoy your lab mates when you decide to go on a coffee break or yuk it up with your buddies down the hall.